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published: 2024-01-11

Ristar [73]

Look at these stupid little birds. Yeah, look at em. Give ‘em a reeeeeal good long look, what with their big doofy1 beaks, their chunky clunky sunglasses, their obtusely bland and conically spanned party hats. Look at how they slam their chins onto the ground like some anvil in a Looney toons cartoon. Makes me want to grab them by their heads and throw myself into them, friggin’ ghouls.

I don’t have a single dang profound thing to say about Ristar. This isn’t an indictment of Ristar, I really enjoyed my time with it, the third game I beat in 2024. I enjoyed all three-and-a-half hours of grabbing kooky mooks like the aforementioned sunglass-clad, bottom-beak-breaking robotic bird brains. I enjoyed my time having a snowball fight with this angry purple dude. I enjoyed discovering that I could spin Ristar around a pole so fast he realizes his true nature and becomes a shooting star for a fleeting, shooting-star-like moment. In general my experience with Ristar is like seeing a shooting star in the night sky: a quick marvel at something magnificent that ends almost as quickly as it begins.

I don’t own a got-darn Sega Genesis, I’m a dang fool who spent money on a limited subscription service where I don’t own any of my games. So I played Ristar on the Nintendo Switch Online emulation platform, complete with rewinds and save states. I never bothered to use the latter of these systems, if only because I more or less abused the former. Ristar gained the powers of Epitaph through my hand and was able to dodge any and all enemy attacks with a swift swerve (and several destroyed timelines). But I’m not talking about Chrono Cross (that’s a story for another time), I’m talking about Ristar!

In not owning a Sega Genesis, I must also admit that I have no idea how the original game controlled, or felt to play, so my next statements should be taken with adequate amounts of salt. Ristar moves slowly as he walks, a significant contrast to Sega’s other, more well known, mascot platformer, and there’s not a way to make our little guy zoom on land any faster. But doesn’t that make sense? What are shooting stars even made up of? Rocks and dust? You ever seen a rock walk down the street? Frankly, it’s kind of a miracle Ristar can move at all when on the planet in this game, if we’re being honest with ourselves. It’s not until the player, as Ristar, grabs ahold of one of these post objects, and has him spin in the direction he is facing that Ristar can accelerate with the power of centrifugal force, or at least some approximation 2. While playing through the aqueous second world of the game, Planet Undertow, it struck me that Ristar was more fun to control under the water than on land. In fact, the act of swimming actually brought me some surprising joy; Ristar is a 2-D platformer where the water levels don’t suck on the basis of movement. If anything I found myself wondering why more of Ristar wasn’t controlled in this more levels, especially near the end of the game where you literally blast through a wall to start the final level.

But then I reminded myself that part of the joy of a platformer is the ability to defy gravity, and as a shooting star, Ristar accomplishes this feat in a number of interesting ways. The first is, as so curiously explored, Ristar’s ability to spin so quickly that he turns into a shooting star. In this mode, Ristar’s controls are sensitive to perturbation. Novice Ristar players, such as myself, might initially struggle in both the timing of the release from the pole and the corresponding direction correction as Ristar blasts off at velocities approaching the speed of light, bouncing elastically off of any barriers in his path, or smashing through the occasional breakable wall. The second, slower, but just technically challenging is Ristar’s ability to climb surfaces standing perpendicular to the ground. By rapidly grabbing at and releasing from a wall with an upward-diagonal orientation, Ristar will gain just enough height to where if this movement is repeated ad nasuem in a rhythmic matter, any wall can be climbed. While it is far more difficult to summit the ledge that Ristar climbs given that Ristar must always reach above himself to climb the wall, it is possible to climb a wall to land on a platform opposite the wall that would be otherwise unreachable. While this technique is not required to beat the game by any means, it is clear that the developers knew this was entirely possible, as demonstrated by the process of both reaching and completing the bonus stage in the final regular stage of the game, Planet Automaton. I must admit, however, that while I have admiration for this mechanic existing, it is far from a comfortable practice. I found my hands sore from clenching my Switch Pro Controller as I desperately tried to grab a wall, failed, rewound the game by simultaneously pressing the ZL and ZR buttons, pressing A to confirm the frame I wished to return to, and then rolling my fingers to immediately try and grasp the wall again. Had I spent more than three hours with Ristar, I’m sure I would’ve eventually developed the true muscle memory to execute this maneuver with minimal clenching. Of course, Idid not do so, partially because of this clench in the first place. Like attempting to keep pace with the fastest kid during the mile run in middle school, I might’ve looked cool as I executed my movements, but this practice was not sustainable as I found myself in excruciating pain.

Okay, fine, I’m exaggerating about the pain from playing Ristar. Not from that middle school mile though. That sucked.

There’s also the third time there Ristar defies gravity, though this happens more in a cutscene between stages. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a level transition screen be as joyous and exciting as Ristar’s, where Ristar assumes the shape of a shooting star and flies off to the next planet all while an incredibly joyous tune plays. It’s euphoria made into stardust entering your ears.

Don't believe me? See it for yourself:

The soundtrack by Tomoko Sasaki is the definitive ‘Soundtrack I think of when I think of what the Sega Genesis soundchip sounds like”, moreso than any Sonic the Hedgehog game (sans perhaps Knuckles Chaotix). While not my immediate favorite video game soundtrack of all time (Lord knows I’ve got to spend some time reorgainzing that list), many of the music tracks in Ristar friggin’ own, dude. The entire soundtrack has this buzzy sound in each track, with the bassline in most tracks owning that signature blotty, dense Sega Genesis feel.

At the risk of this becoming a list where I write two sentences about each music track, I will simply provide a few thoughts about a select few (two) tracks that stood out to me in my initial playthrough.

Given that Sonic Advance 2 remains my favorite Sonic Game in the franchise, as I approached the fourth zone in Ristar, Planet Sonata with its pale pink horizon, I expected some kind of more upbeat, lighthearted tunes akin to that of Music Plant Act 1. Instead, I was met with this ambient, soft-spoken, almost omnious sound that left me feeling tense and uncertain of things. As I went through the level, I brought metronomes to birds, who then proceed to break out into parts of a second song that, as level progressed got more and more filled in until I reached the doofy looking trio of sunglasses-clad birds shown at the start of this whole affair. It makes sense then, to assume that the progression of the happier melody populating the background music parallel’s Ristar’s progression in helping the bird-like citizens of Planet Sonata find their lost metronomes. I guess they can’t sing without a tempo, huh. I don’t particularly care for the happier version of the song “Du Di Da”, but the more ominous ambient version of the song really caught me off-guard, and stuck with me in a way I didn’t expect. When other levels in this game provide musical motifs that are perhaps somewhat played out in their respective zones (the fire level being intense and a little chaotic, the water level being calm and full muted notes, the ice level having a cheery, high-pitched melody), it’s easy to lose their sounds to the symphony of sounds made in games. But when music tracks subvert initial expectations in the way that Planet Sonata initially does, they happen to stick with me for much longer.

Ring Rink, the track for the first Act of Planet Freon is basically the perfect music track to convey a happy winter feeling through an old school video game aesthetic. The little bell-like twinkle samples with their musical note pattern (the name of which escapes me, but can be heard in many different Christmas songs) make me think of shimmering snowflakes falling on a soft winter’s night. The main melodic voice in the song also being more mellow and muted reminds me of how everything sounds just a little softer when a light, yet constant, flurry of flakes fall in the frigid and freezing air. No complaints, this is definitely music you’d hear in a Sega Genesis-focused video game youtuber video about the holiday season.

I think more than anything, what pulled me into playing Ristar was Sonic the Hedgehog. I’ve played the mainline Sonic the Hedgehog games for the Sega Genesis, and have seen the many games they have since inspired directly and indirectly. Sonic the Hedgehog IS the Sega mascot, this we know to be true. But Ristar was RIGHT there! What happened to our beloved shooting star that made him fall through the crack to be lost to time? This is the ONLY Ristar game and at the time of writing, early January 2024, it doesn’t seem like there will be any new Ristar games anytime soon. So, I wanted to see why this game didn’t get the same treatment as its Genesis Mascot platforming brother (And it's not just because Sonic Snowboards while ristar skiis. Skiiing is cool and fun and hoenstly better than snowboarding in my opinion, though I suppose I'm not a cool hip teen in the 1990s, I wasn't even conceived yet, sue me). Having played Ristar to completion, I think I can explain why.

Actually, I already have.

I don’t have anything really meaningful to say about Ristar beyond “I don’t have a single dang profound thing to say about Ristar. This isn’t an indictment of Ristar, I really enjoyed my time with it,”, and that’s fine with me. Not every game will change my life. I didn't choose to play Ristar because I wanted a Sega Genesis game to enter the halls of my favorite games of all time, and I'm not going to pretend that Ristar has done so. But it never needed to, if I'm being real. Seeing a shooting star is a fun memory, but it’s not going to be the primary event that inspires me in the way it might someone else. I got to see (and play as) a shooting star for a little while, and that was really cool! It’s incredible that something like it came to be and I’m lucky that I got to experience it in my fleeting time on this Earth. We can’t play games expecting them to change us in the same way we can’t go on a vacation to watch a meteor shower for the sole purpose of writing a book about it later. Ristar is proof of that.

Well actually no, I lied, these stupid looking bird bosses in their drab party hats might never leave my mind ever again.

Next Chapter: When to Drop a Game (Kingdom Hearts 1.5) >>

  1. doofy (adjective): portmanteau between "dumb" and "goofy"↩︎

  2. As a physicist by trade, I must pause and consider the mechanics of this process. How does our little star boy begin to accelerate? Through gravity’s pull? And then he spins so quickly he begins to accelerate, but his own bodily mass doesn’t change, the gravity doesn’t change, and he doesn’t get closer to the pole, so what the hell is going on here? And Ristar eventually hits a maximum velocity too so it’s not like this is something that has no upper limit. I’m fascinated by our little shooting star here. What secrets do you hid within your bodily composition? From where are you acquiring this increase in velocity?↩︎